President, MediaKidz Research & Consulting
Jessica Piotrowski, our previous CAMmer in the Spotlight, would love to know what you are working on these days, and when we can find Capacity Model 2.0 in print.
Since I primarily do applied work (mostly overseeing educational content and conducting research to help create educational TV series, digital games, hands-on materials, etc.), I’m always juggling multiple projects at the same time. At the moment, I’m running a formative research study for one of the TV series that Sesame Workshop is producing for Apple’s streaming service, handling educational content for a social-emotional TV show in the Philippines, writing a graphic novel or two, and finishing up educational content work for a couple of projects that I’ve been working on for several years now: The Magic School Bus Rides Again on Netflix and digital games to accompany The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That on PBS.
With so much going on, it’s probably no surprise that my most honest answer re: when the new Capacity Model will appear in print is “Not soon enough.” (For anyone who isn’t familiar with it, the original Capacity Model explains some of the cognitive processing that enables kids to understand educational content on television. The new model extends similar principles to do the same for educational games.) I pulled together the background literature long ago, and pretty much the whole structure of the model is in my head, but I’ve simply been too busy working to get the whole thing together on paper.
Actually, over the past couple of years, I’ve made a few attempts to get grants that would free up enough of my time to finish my work on the model. Unfortunately, no one’s agreed to fund it yet, so the model continues to creep along at a snail’s pace while I do other things to make a living. But, hey, if anyone reading this has some funding they’d like to pass along…
What has been your most memorable project so far, and why?
I assume you mean “memorable” in a good way…?
Thankfully, I’ve had the privilege to work on many memorable projects with lots of wonderful people. It’s hard to beat hanging out on Sesame Street with Elmo or getting to write stories about some of the favorite characters of my childhood, like Batman or Bugs Bunny. And one of the best things about doing research with kids is seeing firsthand that educational media really do have an impact.
As a result, it’s hard to pick just one or two memorable projects, because so many are memorable to me — some for personal reasons, and some because of the impact they’ve had. But here are a couple of examples. On a personal level, the first TV show I ever worked on was a terrific math series called Square One TV. (If you’re too young to remember Square One, search YouTube for things like “Mathnet”, “8% of My Love”, or “Your Map commercial”. You won’t regret it.) When I first walked into the Children’s Television Workshop (now called Sesame Workshop) to interview for a research internship on Square One, Blackstone the magician was on a live feed from the studio, and my desk was under a sign for Bozo’s Clown School. I knew immediately that I had come home.
From the standpoint of impact, many of the media projects I’ve worked on have been shown to yield significant benefits for kids. But, to me, it’s most memorable when the need is greatest. For example, over the past several years, I’ve helped create classroom materials and designed evaluation measures to accompany the TV series 1001 Nights, which is designed to help refugees and other children in crisis in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. These children have faced war, poverty, and extremism on a daily basis, and tens of thousands of them have spent years without any formal education. It’s enormously rewarding to know that organizations like UNICEF and various Ministries of Education are using our materials with hundreds of thousands of children — and to see the research results that show significant gains in areas like tolerance, gender equality, and nonviolent conflict resolution. Of course, TV and classroom activities can’t solve all of these children’s problems by themselves. But, especially when children face such dire challenges, every contribution is invaluable.
Which achievement are you most proud of, and why?
Well, naturally, the achievement I’m most proud of is my family. And some of my cooler achievements probably won’t mean much to most CAMmers, like having a bunch of my comic book stories included in two #1 New York Times bestselling graphic novels. But, among my academic work, some of the achievements that make me particularly proud are:
- Creating the capacity model, and seeing how it’s continued to stand up empirically and inspire research for almost 20 years.
- Writing and/or editing several comprehensive books and journal issues that synthesized large bodies of research on educational media for the first time (with gratitude to the friends and colleagues who also contributed).
- Responding to the changing media landscape by leading the first in-depth empirical study of cross-platform learning — that is, investigating how learning from combined use of multiple media platforms (e.g., TV and games) compares to learning from a single medium.
What is an important question from parents and practitioners that we as academics
cannot provide a good answer to yet?
“So what do you do for a living?” I’ve never been able to answer that question in less than a paragraph.
More seriously, here’s something that we haven’t been able to answer fully yet: Technology and the media landscape are both changing so quickly and constantly that it’s hard to keep up. As a result, there’s so much that we don’t know about children’s use of digital technology and its potential impact (both positive and negative). And, even though some research has begun to document children’s learning from digital games, we’ve yet to see anything on long-term impact on the scale of something like the Early Window or Recontact studies of Sesame Street. I would love to see more research in these areas, particularly research that’s generalizable beyond a single, specific platform, so that it can continue to hold implications for future technologies as well.
What would be your work motto?
“If there’s more than one thing that you like to do, why not do all of them?” Which leads to my second motto: “Who needs sleep?”
Which of your publications is your favorite, and why?
Again, it’s hard to pick just one. But here are a few that go along with the achievements I mentioned earlier:
The article A capacity model of children’s comprehension of educational content on television, which was published in Media Psychology (2000).
The book “G” is for growing: Thirty years of research on children and Sesame Street (2001), which I co-edited together with Rosemarie Truglio, and my book Children’s learning from educational television: Sesame Street and beyond (2004).
The article Cross-platform learning: On the nature of children’s learning from multiple media platforms, which was published in New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development (2013).
Lessons from the U.S. Department of Education’s Ready to Learn program, a special section in the Journal of Children and Media (2016), which I guest edited.
And yes, someday I’ll add the new Capacity Model paper to the list, along with an update of my 2004 book to also encompass educational games.
If you had unlimited resources, what kind of project would you want to do and why?
Well, as you can probably guess by now, the top of the list would include finishing the new Capacity Model and the update of my 2004 book, if only to make myself happy (not to mention making Jess Piotrowski happy too). Other entries on the list would include an empirical study or two, and several creative projects, including a graphic novel that I’m in the middle of writing, but it also keeps getting delayed by work with more immediate deadlines.
If you had to give one piece of advice to young CAM scholars, what would it be?
Actually, I’ll give two: When I was simultaneously a grad student and young researcher at Sesame Workshop, I went to my first conference of the Society for Research in Child Development and met John Wright, one of the leading academic researchers studying kids and TV. I asked him a couple of questions, and to my surprise, John sat down to talk with me about research for a full half-hour, despite never having met me before. The fact that someone of his stature would do that bowled me over, so I decided then and there that, throughout my career, I would always make myself equally available to young researchers. As young CAM scholars grow to become established senior scholars, I encourage them to do the same.
My second piece of advice is always to thank those who’ve gone before. It’s important for them to know they’ve had an influence, and it’s important for you to recognize whose shoulders you’re standing on. I’m enormously grateful that I’ve had the chance to meet many icons of my own childhood — like Mister Rogers, Captain Kangaroo, Stan Lee, and so many more — and thank them for blazing the trail and helping to shape my career. Not to mention thanking Gerry Lesser several times over the course of our friendship, both for his pioneering role in helping to shape the original curriculum for Sesame Street and (on a more personal level) for writing Children and Television: Lessons from Sesame Street, the book that directly sparked my entire career by opening my eyes to the fact that anyone actually used research to create educational media.
Who would you like to put in the spotlight next, and why?
Heather Kirkorian. I always find Heather’s research interesting, and I’d love to hear what she’s up to.
To download a copy of this edition of CAMmer in the spotlight click here.